Dr. CUMMINGS: Don’t name your cows

August 25, 2013 

Last week, my 20-year-old grandson, Michael, started his own beef cattle farm. He has a bull and about 20 bred cows, and he’s waiting for the calves to be born in December. He’s a very sensitive young man, full of love for these animals and dedicated to their care and feeding, but I hope he doesn’t name them. I hope -- when the time comes -- he can just load them up and ship them off without any teary goodbyes, or worse, yet -- without keeping one or two or three or more, as pets.

In business, we call this favoritism. When the president or the director or the manager “names” certain employees, it’s just as bad as “naming your cows.” It means these employees will get special privileges, higher pay and better jobs than everybody else. They become pet cows, hated by the rest of the herd as they parade around chomping on the best hay.

A 2011 survey conducted by Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business found that 92 percent of senior business executives have seen favoritism at play in employee promotions, while 25 percent admitted to practicing favoritism themselves. How about you? How much of this have you seen? How many times have you played favorites at work and even at home with your children?

A 2013 study by the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and published in the Journal of Business Ethics stated that there might be an advantage to making certain employees feel a little more special than the others; they work harder. Maybe that’s like the “favorite cows give more milk.” I don’t think so. Maybe it works with cows, but no matter how you slice it in the workplace, favoritism will come back to bite you. I’ve seen it backfire in two ways:

1. The “un-favored employees” will find ways to sabotage the business, even if that means just slowing down. The idea that they will try harder to be your pet and get some of those goodies -- never happens.

2. The “favored ones” will feel entitled. Try saying to one of your favorites: “I know I managed to give you a $2,000 bonus last year when the others got $1,000, but I just can’t do that again; you’ll be getting the same as the rest.” Go ahead. Just try it.

Why does it happen? Why do some bosses -- both men and women -- ignore the obvious danger and pick out their favorites from the rest of the team? Why do they sacrifice the goals of the organization for the gratification of their own comfort? That’s it, isn’t it? Comfort. It’s a whole lot more comfortable to have a close friend at work, especially one of your direct reports, than people who come to work -- to work. Two words of advice:

First, to all bosses out there: remember your school days. The teacher’s pet caused more problems than benefits, even for the pet. Remember the anger in the classroom, the tears, the pushing, the frustration? Well, your employees have the same feelings. Exactly. Only today they’re adults and they handle injustice with more tact and finesse.

My advice: Cut it out.

Literally. Cut out your raucous “business meetings” in your closed-door office where everyone can hear you laughing. Cut out the “business trips” and the “business lunches” where your pet is always your chosen companion. Spread the wealth; you’ve got several loyal people who are starved for a little attention and who have information you really need but rarely get.

Secondly, for all of you who feel slighted and overlooked and neglected: ignore it. Anger and sulking and gossiping won’t change your boss, and it won’t help you at all. Instead, focus on your work; make it better and more valuable than the pet’s, and if you just can’t take it anymore, quit.

Walk out. But on your way out, you might want to knock on your boss’s office door and say: Oh, by the way, I heard a cattleman say: “Don’t name your cows.” He got that one right.

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corporation and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is digitallydrc.com.

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